Faculty, Research

Between Trauma and Perpetration: Psychoanalytical and Social Psychological Perspectives on Difficult Histories in the Israeli Context

Tsafrir_GoldbergProfessor Tsafrir Goldberg, PhD, teaches From Silence to Omnipresence: Holocaust in the Curriculum and Beyond.  

In his most recent academic article, Professor Tsafrir Goldberg addresses a ground-breaking question in the realm of Holocaust education, asking whether the Holocaust should still be understood to be an episode of ‘difficult history’ in Israel today?

Episodes of ‘difficult history’ are those which challenge self-identity and in some way threaten the student’s self-esteem. From a psychoanalytical perspective, historic topics covering collective trauma constitute ‘difficult history’. Experiencing historical testimony can bring a sense of ‘return of suffering’ to the student, which needs to be processed in order to restore the learner’s sense of self-identity as part of the victimized group.

In contrast, a social psychological approach indicates that topics of ‘difficult history’ are those in which the student’s ‘in-group’ is perceived to be the perpetrator. From this point of view, a historical episode of perpetration becomes ‘difficult’ because it brings a sense of guilt at having victimized others, which is a threat to self-identity of the group and the individual as part of that group.

Today, Professor Goldberg writes, collective trauma could be seen as an asset, fostering positive identity and moral self-esteem. This has given rise to ‘competitive victimhood’, which leads groups to ignore or reject the suffering of other groups because they are seen as undermining their own platform of righteous suffering.

Holocaust education has long been the paradigmatic ‘difficult history’, and the path of Holocaust education in Israel has traditionally followed the psychoanalytic perspective of aiding students to process their sense of collective trauma. But Professor Goldberg points out that in recent years, Holocaust education in Israel has burgeoned into the largest and most important topic on the curriculum. In comparison with this, the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem has been evaded and rejected as a topic in the history curriculum. He brings reports from those teachers who do teach it about their students’ opposition to this topic and their rejection of Palestinian narratives of suffering. Alongside this, history teachers report that their students exhibit intolerance of other nations’ genocides.

On the foundation of these observations Professor Goldberg asks the disruptive question: “Could a historical issue that arouses enthusiasm, excitement and satisfaction among teachers and learners still be considered a difficult history?”

Professor Goldberg goes on to evince that students of the Holocaust do not feel shame, defeat, or hatred even on the most intensive engagement with testimony of trauma. On the contrary, facing testimony of collective trauma in Poland increases a sense of victory and and national pride in Jewish students instead of challenging it. In contrast, accepting learning about in-group perpetration in the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem lowers students’ sense of national glorification and increases their empathy with the suffering of others, which indicates “The unsettling effect of difficult knowledge which challenges learners’ identity or social identification.”

He suggests that given students’ reactions to learning about the Holocaust, educators should consider a social psychological approach. Engaging with difficult history of collective trauma in a psychoanalytical fashion can successfully process that trauma and is a way of coping with a ‘difficult return’. But it could also move to a ‘strategic practice’ of enhancing a sense of moral victimhood instead of increasing learners’ ability to feel for others’ suffering.

Professor Tsafrir Goldberg, PhD, is a member of the Dept. of Learning, Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of Haifa.


Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program?  You can find the application and more information at our website

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